Finding different ways to save birds

Dec 3, 2013

Veronica Mecko of the Missouri River Bird Observatory gets some vital statistics from a Gray Catbird during a migration count at Van Meter State Park in October.
Credit Gary Grigsby / KBIA News

Listening to birds sing and talk is probably something we all take for granted at times.

The number of birds in this country has been declining though for many years.  There's an effort afoot to address this issue.  It's the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture and was formed more than a decade ago to change the way we go about saving birds.  Instead of many agencies, each doing its own thing, the joint venture gets state and federal government agencies along with non-governmental groups working together and having the same goals to try and ensure the viability of native bird populations in the central hardwoods.  It's an area that encompasses 75 million acres of hardwood forests in portions of more than a half dozen states including Missouri.  

A small part of this big effort to save birds took place just after dawn on a clear October morning at Van Meter State Park north of Marshall.  "We have another Gray Catbird," said Veronica Mecko. She is cradling a Gray Catbird in her hand that was caught just a few minutes earlier in a special net 50 yards away.  "I would give it a three for muscle," Mecko said.  "Oh, and look at those beautiful undertail coverts!"  Mecko had just measured and weighed the Catbird before putting a small metal band with some tracking information on it around one of the birds legs before releasing it a few minutes later.  It's part of a weeks long migration count by the Missouri River Bird Observatory.  Ethan Duke is heading up the project.  "We want to collect good sample sizes and compare stopover time.  To see how well birds are stocking up and how long they stayed here during migration," Duke said.  

All the info from the bird count gets pulled in with info from thousands of other birds caught around the country.  This is important stuff to Dr. Todd Jones-Farrand.  He's a MU trained wildlife ecologist employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is the Science Coordinator for the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture.  Jones-Farrand said, "We can get information from that about what their annual survival rate is and productivity rates which is important for understanding population growth or decline."  This is important information to be sure, looking at the breeding grounds for birds.  But Jones-Farrand, and others at the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture are trying to see the bigger picture and look at declining bird populations in a different way.  "Maybe the breeding ground isn't the problem," Jones-Farrand said. "Maybe birds are dying in migration or there are problems in their wintering breeding grounds or in Central or South America or the Caribbean.  Maybe that's where the problems is at."  And so Jones-Farrand and others are building models.  For example, taking a bird from the breeding ground, moving it through migration areas to the wintering ground and then back again, to try to estimate what its survival rate is, and what type of reproductive success its had.    

The Joint Venture's highest priority right now though is working on a project called the Shortleaf Pine Initiative.  Federal funding was approved recently to begin restoring 88,000 acres of pine woodlands in the Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri.  That's where Jones-Farrand comes in.  He determines what the habitat needs to look like and predicts if it will work to get the birds back they are focusing on.  This includes everything from how many trees to plant per acre and where to plant them.  "And then we are also coming in before they do treatments to count the birds," Jones said.  "And then after the treatments we will come back and count the birds again.  And so we can assess what kind of impact did they have and is it what we expected."  Jones-Farrand hopes it will be the type of habitat where certain birds used to live and will once again.  "We are hoping to build stepping stones so that birds that were extirpated from Missouri like the Red Cockaded Woodpecker or the Brown Headed Nuthatch can make their way back here," Jones-Ferrand said.    

The Shortleaf Pine Initiative is a long-term project.  There will be no overnight fix.  But it's a coordinated one and everyone seems hopeful that will make this all work.